At first dismissed and ridiculed by Western countries, Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has not only been rehabilitated; it’s emerging as a powerful tool of influence abroad for President Vladimir Putin.
“I think they possibly couldn’t be feeling more smug and delighted about the way things are going,” said Judy Twigg, a professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., and an expert on the politics of global health.
“The Kremlin is having a whole lot of problems in other areas right now but this is one unvarnished, unmitigated win they can point to right now.”
The vaccine, named after the first satellite sent into space almost 70 years ago, was meant to evoke historic images of Russian glory. Instead, initial claims of Sputnik V’s effectiveness were met with deep skepticism after Russia authorized its widespread use before completing all phases of its clinical trials.
However, a key turning point came last week with the validation of Sputnik V’s Phase 3 trials by the Lancet medical journal.
It confirmed the vaccine is safe and effective. While the journal noted Sputnik V’s development faced criticism for “an absence of transparency” and “corner cutting,” it said the vaccine maker, Moscow’s Gamaleya National Centre of Epidemiology and Microbiology, had, in fact, demonstrated solid scientific principles.
At about $10 US each for the two-shot dose, the vaccine is roughly half the price of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and it can be stored at –2 C whereas the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require much-colder temperatures.
Since the Lancet article, more good news announcements about the vaccine have followed, with Russian TV showing pallets of boxes filled with vaccine vials being fork-lifted into the bellies of Aeroflot aircraft, ready for delivery to countries across South America, the Middle East and Central Asia.
Russia’s government reports that up to 30 countries have either already purchased the vaccine or have expressed an interest in doing so.
Even the once-unlikely notion of selling the vaccine to countries in Europe suddenly seems to be within reach.
On Tuesday, the regulatory body for the 27 members of the European Union announced Russia had made a formal submission for approval of Sputnik V and that the review process could begin shortly.
Hungary, which ran its own trials of Sputnik V, is so far the only EU country to announce plans to use it.
Other member states, however, say they continue to have reservations about the political motivations behind Russia’s vaccine hype.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte tweeted that she saw no good news in Russia’s vaccine breakthrough.
“They say, Sputnik V is good but Putin doesn’t care to use it as a cure for the Russian people — he offers it to the world as another hybrid weapon to divide and rule.”
Neither Canada nor the United States has expressed an interest in taking a closer look at the Russian vaccine, and it doesn’t appear likely they will.
Twigg says for Russia’s adversaries, the choice of whether to use Sputnik or not presents an ethical dilemma.
“You don’t want to give Vladimir Putin, in these circumstances, a political win,” she said. “On the other hand, you need vaccines for your people. In fact, you needed [them] yesterday.”
That conundrum was on display last Friday during a visit to Moscow by the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.
With the Kremlin facing widespread criticism for its imprisonment of Putin-foe Alexey Navalny and the subsequent mass arrests of thousands of protestors who came out in support of the opposition leader, Borrell’s words of criticism for Putin were overshadowed by his comments praising Sputnik and his hope it would be made widely available to the world.
Borrell’s visit was widely slammed as a diplomatic blunder that allowed Putin to shift the focus away from Russia’s authoritarian crackdown on dissent and dodge the issue of Navlany’s fate.
The question of whether or not to use Sputnik V is especially acute for Russia’s closest neighbour, Ukraine, which is one of the poorest nations in Europe and has yet to launch a mass vaccination campaign.
Nonetheless, Ukraine, which has had close to 1.3 million cases of coronavirus and more than 25,000 deaths, has passed a law banning Sputnik V because the idea of using a Russian-made vaccine is so politically toxic domestically.
The only regions of Ukraine that will use the Russian vaccine are those controlled by pro-Russia separatist forces around the eastern city of Donetsk, where a shipment of 100,000 doses of Sputnik V arrived recently.
“I’d like to remind everybody who might have forgotten this, there has been a war [with Russia] for almost seven years already,” Ukraine’s health minister, Maxym Stephanov, told CBC News in an interview, referencing the ongoing conflict with Russia in Eastern Ukraine.
“The Russian Federation didn’t bring death … to the territories of those countries [considering using Sputnik V].”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced this week that his country would start receiving the first deliveries of a potential eight million doses through the World Health Organization’s COVAX program later this month, as well as vaccines purchased from the United Kingdom and China.
Russia-friendly media outlets have launched a barrage of coverage, including dozens of newspaper and TV reports, targeting Ukrainian audiences, much of it aimed at denigrating Western-made coronavirus vaccines and attempting to leverage Ukraine’s lack of vaccines as a means of turning the population against Zelensky’s pro-Western government.
In response, Ukraine’s president revoked the licenses of three pro-Russia TV channels in the country, claiming the move was necessary in “the name of national security.”
“I think if Sputnik V was the world’s only vaccine, I still wouldn’t buy it,” IT worker Leonid Koloda told a CBC crew in Kiev, reflecting a skepticism common outside the separatist regions of the country.
Few options for some countries
Elsewhere, however, geopolitics are either less of a factor or simply outweighed by the lack of vaccine alternatives.
Russia shipped 10,000 doses of Sputnik V to the Palestinian Territories this week, allowing a mass-vaccination campaign to begin for the 4.5 million residents of the West Bank and Gaza.
Doctors and staff at Istishari Arab Hospital in Ramallah were among the first to get jabbed.
“I’m very happy we have it,” anesthesiologist Samir Nasrallah told CBC News as he rolled up his sleeve.
“Russian [vaccine] factories are good, and when they do something, it will work.”
Senior Palestinian health officials told CBC they are deeply appreciative.
“We don’t care about political issues. We have to protect our population against this pandemic and this virus,” said Dr. Ali Abed Rabbo, director of preventative health for the Palestinian Authority.
Hesitancy at home
One of the ironies of Sputnik V’s new-found international success is that people outside of Russia may be more convinced of its efficacy than those at home.
The Levada Centre, an independent polling and research organization, reported earlier this month that only 38 per cent of Russians are ready to get vaccinated, with many saying they either fear side-effects or don’t trust the Russian vaccine maker or just won’t take any vaccine.
In an effort to overcome the vaccine hesitancy, pop-up vaccination clinics have been established at many sites around the capital, Moscow, and getting a jab is easy, free and usually involves just a short wait.
One of the most popular is at the GUM luxury shopping mall on Red Square, where Maria Anikina and a friend got their second dose on Tuesday.
She told CBC her friends who live in Vancouver are jealous, and they can’t believe it’s so easy to get vaccinated in Russia.
“They would also like to get the vaccine, but as I understand, it’s not time yet for them in Canada.”